The study used a popular website that ranks the best of only British and Irish Comedians. The researchers therefore focused on a group of comedians from only one geographical part of the world. But Dr. Simon Stewart and Dr. David Thompson argue that a preliminary examination of the comedy scene outside of the UK suggests that their study reveals a more universal phenomenon.
For example, the survival profiles of famous and celebrated comedy duos such as Abbott (funny man who died aged 52) and Costello (straight man who died aged 78) suggest these findings may hold true across the Atlantic.
Dr. Stewart and Dr. Thompson point out that previous research has established that comedians score high on measures of psychotic traits and display an unusual personality structure characterized by ‘introverted anhedonia’ combined with ‘extraverted impulsiveness.’
One theory is that there is something about the kind of personality and psychology involved in being particularly funny, which is also linked to this high mortality rate.
The authors of the study point out that many comedians have publicly admitted to being depressed or manic or sometimes even both.
Examples include John Cleese, Peter Cook, Stephen Fry, Tony Hancock, Spike Milligan and Kenneth Williams. In the case of some like Tony Hancock (widely regarded as a genius comic) this resulted in taking his own life.
The study was partly inspired by the recent suicide of comedian Robin Williams.
But suicide alone cannot account for this finding, as many of the comedians who died early, did so from natural or medical causes, not suicide, including the recent death, aged just 56 years old, of funny man Rik Mayall ostensibly from a heart attack.
However, it may be they manifest self-destructiveness in some more long term ways. Graham Chapman died of cancer possibly secondary to smoking and was reportedly a heavy drinker.
Psychologists Gil Greengross and Geoffrey Miller from the University of New Mexico, United States, compared the personalities of 31 professional stand-up comedians with those of nine amateur comedians, 10 humor writers and 400 college students.
The study entitled, “The Big Five personality traits of professional comedians compared to amateur comedians, comedy writers, and college students” found that, surprisingly, comedians are more introverted than other people.
Greengross and Miller argue that you would expect comedians’ pursuit of fame and attention to mean they are bound to be highly extroverted, like we know actors tend to be.
The intriguing result, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, suggests that comedians do not seek fame the same way as actors.
While the authors of the study acknowledge that the public perceive comedians as ostentatious and ﬂashy, perhaps their persona on stage is mistakenly seen interchangeably with their real personality.
The jokes they tell about their lives might be considered by many to contain a grain of truth in them, however, the results of this study suggest that the opposite is true.
Greengross and Miller speculate that perhaps comedians use their performance to disguise who they are in their daily lives. Comedians may portray someone they want to be or perhaps their act is a way of defying the constraints imposed on their everyday events and interactions with others.
The authors speculate that ‘impulsive dis-inhibition’ is at the core of the comedic personality and is necessary to come up constantly with weird new ideas that are funny. Comedians also need this to violate social rules by publicly declaring unconventional sentiments. But does this ‘impulsive dis-inhibition’ end up killing them because they then don’t look after themselves properly?
Those who bring the house down also seem to pull the curtain down too quickly.
Follow Dr Raj Persaud on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@DrRajPersaud
Dr Raj Persaud’s new novel “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” on the narcissism of stalking and obsessive love is released in support of UK National Stalking Awareness Week April 18 with all proceeds from sales donated to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust the UK’s anti-stalking personal safety charity.
Empty stage photo available from Shutterstock